Must Kyrgyzstan Choose Between Islam and Stability?
In recent weeks, the mammoth Friday edition of Vechernii Bishkek, the newspaper of record for Russian-speaking Bishkek, has featured two full-page editorials warning that “the future of the secular state” is in danger.The editorials toe the dominant government line, reciting recent Security Council warnings about a dangerous lack of religious education among imams who could lead Muslims astray, and the number of extremists operating in Kyrgyzstan, as proof of the danger of increasing religious belief in Kyrgyzstan.So one would have expected the October 14 editorial to reference the “terrorist” hunt last week, in which one individual was shot dead near Osh and 10 more arrested. Perhaps the government’s story -- that the arrests disrupted a multi-ethnic Islamic Jihad Union cell determined to destabilize the country ahead of a presidential election on October 30 -- was too much for even Vechernii Bishkek to stomach. Yet the October 14 editorial does sound the alarm about “groups of partisans of different varieties of Islam” working within the state-sponsored Muslim Spiritual Board, or Muftiate. On this score, Mufti Chubak hajji Jalilov appears to have gotten the message. Last month, after stoking protests over a de facto ban on headscarves in public schools, the Muftiate quickly retreated and backed the government line – that no ban was in place. Islamic civil society groups were not satisfied, however, and some may now be taking their anger to the mosque. On October 6, the mufti described what he called “provocations” at mosques around Bishkek – presumably by radical elements – when women wearing black hijab stormed into mosques and called on the congregants to defend their rights. The mufti said, without providing specifics, that the protests were “political games” aimed at destabilizing the country in the pre-election period. A worshipper who witnessed a hijab-clad malcontent at the city’s main mosque, however, told EurasiaNet.org her protest did not appear organized, and that, besides, only one woman was involved. When even the country’s highest-ranking Muslim cleric feels compelled to play the “destabilizing Muslim” card, it seems unlikely society will quietly accept the growing influence of Islam in public life. A genuinely “new conception of state policy in the religious sphere,” as Vechernii Bishkek calls for, seems very far away indeed.